Sunday, September 25, 2011

Linguistic Injustice Rant

Warning—this blog entry is a rant, and as such, it's presented in such a way that facts and objectivity are less important than observations or reason. It is my rant against what I perceive to be linguistic injustice in the world...or at least in the U.S: People don't care about Spanish-speaking countries. I suspect it is a linguistic prejudice.

I grew up in an area with a lot of Spanish speakers. I studied Spanish in high school, and I majored in it when I went to college. In all my time studying, however, I have felt a negativity in the attitude of many people towards the Spanish language, the people who speak it, and the countries that they are from.

In my experience, learning Spanish has a “low” coolness factor. People don't learn Spanish because it's cool—they learn it because they think they can get a better job. A study of student's perceptions of foreign languages showed that
“Spanish and Portuguese were believed by fewer of the students studying them to have cultural or literary value. In the case of Spanish, a large number of students believed it to be easier and somewhat more logical than other languages, but they found it low in socio- economic, socio-political, and practical value. Again, it appears that the view that Spanish is an easy language was a very significant factor in the students' choice.”
Yes, in the higher levels of education, you will find students that genuinely love the language. And these same students will tell you about the beautiful literary and cultural history of Spain and Latin America. And they will also have to keep in the disappointment when their neighbors and friends ignorantly refer to all Hispanic-looking, Spanish-speaking people as “Mexicans,” or “illegal aliens,” regardless of their nationality or immigration status. Non-citizen and illegal alien are two different things.

Spanish is the 2nd most widely spoken language in the world. There is nearly a continent of countries that have Spanish as their official language (and it's not like French in many African countries, where it is the “official language,” but most people speak their dialect as well). For the most part, people in Latin America speak Spanish.

Why, then, are Spanish-speaking countries mostly off our radar? Why does it seem that things that happen in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East are a big deal, while similar events in Latin America barely draw attention?

Example 1: Earthquakes
In March, there was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan. It was in the news for weeks. There were relief efforts all over the place. In 2010, there was a huge 8.8 quake in Chile. I remember seeing an article in the paper the day after it happened, but really nothing else. Granted, the death toll in Japan was way higher than in Chile, and there was the threat of nuclear explosion from that overheating power plant. I definitely don't mean to downplay the severity of the Japanese tragedy.

Example 2: Internal Violence
In Libya, under Gaddafi, between 10,000 and 30,000 people died because of internal violence (Source). It is terrible, but the UN stepped in and supported the people in their uprising. As of June 2011, the death toll in Mexico was somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 from cartel violence. (Source) People are being terrorized, and the government hasn't been able to do anything about it. This has been going on for at least 5 years. Where is the UN? Where is the support? Do you think we would tell any escaping Libyan immigrants that they needed to go back to Libya while Gaddafi  was still in power?

Not completely related to the Language aspect, but a interesting commentary (

Example 3: Foreign Aid
Between 2003 and 2009, the US gave over $171,194 million in foreign aid to specific countries. Of that amount, $14,802 million went to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. That is about 8.6%. The U.S. gave nearly that much the the Middle East/North Africa in 2008 alone! (Source)

There are actually really poor examples. They can all be explained away with other side issues, but I think they illustrate the emotional point I am trying to make. People would rather listen to movies that they don't understand in French, German, Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic than in Spanish. We would rather sympathize with the problems of malnutrition in African villages than the same problems in South American villages. Speakers of German and French share our heritage. Japanese and Chinese have interesting “eastern” cultures attached to them. Arabic has the rebellious appeal of it's connection to Islam. Africa has babies.

No one cares what Spanish has. It is not a favored language, and as such, its speakers and countries are marginalized in the U.S. attention span.

Aside from notes about the exaggeration and the clear lack of objectivity in this rant, does anyone else have thoughts on this topic?